Ellen Gray: 'Downton Abbey' returns for 3rd season

Shirley MacLaine (right) is the newest cast member of "Downton Abbey," which also stars Maggie Smith (left).
Shirley MacLaine (right) is the newest cast member of "Downton Abbey," which also stars Maggie Smith (left).
Posted: January 04, 2013

* MASTERPIECE: DOWNTON ABBEY. 9 p.m. Sunday, WHYY 12.

TELEVISION'S back.

No more "fall finales." Not only are many things old new again - holiday reruns, begone! - but just a few short months after the broadcast season began there are again new shows fighting for a place in your heart, or at least on your DVR.

One's set (and filmed) in Philadelphia. Another stars Kevin Bacon, who grew up here. And if you're looking for a third Philly-centric reason to be excited, Upper Darby's own Tina Fey is co-hosting the Golden Globes with Amy Poehler on NBC Jan. 13. So there's that.

But it can't all be about us. For many, the first big TV event of 2013 will be Sunday's return of "Downton Abbey," the "Masterpiece" hit from Great Britain whose third season includes the long-awaited on-screen meeting of Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine.

Smith plays Lady Violet, dowager countess of Grantham, whose acid tongue remains the very best thing about "Downton Abbey" as it reaches what I very much fear to be its declining years.

MacLaine's character, Martha Levinson, is the equally outspoken American whose family's money has helped keep a very large roof over the heads of both the Crawley family and their extensive staff, thanks to the dowry Levinson's daughter Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) brought with her when she married the earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) three grown daughters ago.

You'd think they'd invite her more often.

As the Abbey's upstairs and downstairs contingents prepare for another wedding, that of Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) to the earl's presumptive heir (and distant cousin) Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), the Crawley family's facing a fiscal cliff of sorts.

The money's running out. Again. And it's going to cause all kinds of problems before it's almost miraculously resolved, in true "Downton" fashion, to make way for the next crisis, which may not be so easily finessed.

Yes, there are heartbreaks ahead. I promise not to tell you what they are, but if you've managed to avoid hearing about them already, you'd be well not to Google anything with "Downton" in it between now and the Season 3 finale on Feb. 17.

Let's just say the Brits have seen it - and they're talking about it all over the Internet.

If you've loved every minute of "Downton Abbey" up to now, you'll likely still love it this season, though Bates (Brendan Coyle) is still in prison, Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is still making trouble and Matthew and Mary are still fighting for no good reason.

But if you couldn't help noticing the spots where the plotting of last season seemed stretched particularly thin - some too-convenient deaths, Matthew's miraculous recovery, the earl's suddenly wandering eye - you may have a heart as hard as mine.

In which case you'll want to keep your eyes (and ears) on Lady Violet.

PBS may have been taken by surprise two years ago by the U.S. reception to early 20th century doings of the landed gentry, but its member stations have caught on by now. "Downton" fans watching on WHYY 12 can make an evening of it, starting at 8 with the tie-in documentary, "Secrets of Highclere Castle," whose title refers to the stately home where the show is filmed.


Email: graye@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: EllenGray.tv

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